TOP FIVE *** 1 / 2
Starring Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove and Tracy Morgan. Written and directed by Chris Rock.
I can’t find the quote right now, but I fondly recall back when Bring The Pain blew all our minds almost twenty years ago some interviewer asked Chris Rock what he wanted to do next. Rock said he wanted to be the first black guy in a Woody Allen movie.
Obviously this was long before Chiwetel Ejiofor’s groundbreaking performance as “Ellis Moonsong from Brooklyn, USA” in Woody’s dire Melinda and Melinda. And although Allen found even a role for Rock’s frequent co-writer Louis C.K. in last year’s Blue Jasmine, Chris Rock himself never got the casting call. So he went and did the next best thing by making his own Woody Allen movie.
Ever since its Toronto Film Festival premiere I’ve been hearing Top Five described as Chris Rock’s Annie Hall, which I guess makes sense because it’s a loosey-goosey, side-splittingly funny picture that jumps back and forth in time with a lovestruck, melancholy undertow in which a beloved comedian comes into his own as a formidable filmmaker. But to my surprise and delight Top Five also turns out to be a kinda remake of Woody’s far less-revered Stardust Memories (itself an adorably shameless reworking of Fellini’s 8 ½) in which a beloved comedian takes stock of his limitations and resolves to be funnier.
Rock stars as Andre Allen (see what he did there with the last name?) who rocketed to fame from meager Bed-Stuy beginnings and has since cashed out on a dumbass movie franchise where he voices a wise-cracking, crime-fighting bear. Sober now and not at all happy about it, Dre has thrown what’s left of his box office clout into a horrible-looking prestige vanity project about a Haitian slave rebellion called Uprize. (The “z” is priceless.)
He’s preoccupied with his impending TV-event wedding orchestrated by a no-talent Reality Show Bridezilla (Gabrielle Union) we can only assume was inspired by Executive Producer Kanye West’s Significant Other. Meanwhile Andre has to handle about three weeks’ worth of press tour interviews collapsed into one day, with a chirping reporter from The New York Times following him around all the time for a profile piece.
She’s played by Rosario Dawson, who just might acquit herself here as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Her Ms. Chelsea Brown is so smart and so goddamn absurdly sexy in her Annie Hall hat, the best parts of Top Five are the languorous talks between these two evenly matched intellects, taking their time strolling down New York City streets, shooting the breeze.
Top Five has a weird rhythm, vacillating as it does between long, gorgeously written conversations and abruptly filthy, flutter-cut interludes with an emphasis on the scatological. (This is a spectacularly dirty movie.) It’s rough, it’s raw, and one could easily mistake it for Rock’s first feature for all the recklessness with which he throws in the kitchen sink.
But it’s actually the third film Rock has directed. The first, 2003’s Head of State, was a timid comedy about what might happen if a black guy got elected President, and while working the junket it was the only time I have ever interviewed a filmmaker who seemed honestly ashamed of the slapdash movie he was promoting. The second, 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife, was Rock and Louis C.K. adapting Eric Rohmer’s Chloe In The Afternoon. Yeah, that still sounds like a really great idea. Too bad it didn’t pan out.
Top Five is the Chris Rock movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s boisterous, rude and genuinely romantic. I’m fascinated by the central conflict here in which Rock’s standup superstar is torn between the coonish shucking and jiving of his Hammy the Bear character and a period slave Oscar picture. They’re both horribly offensive, but these are the only two roles Hollywood has to offer even a talent like Chris Rock.
So he went another way and made something all his own. Top Five has some broadly disgusting sight gags you can never un-see while maintaining the delicate, thoughtful temperament of a French arthouse picture. And the last shot is positively gorgeous. He’s a real filmmaker.
Hey, you don’t need me to tell you Chris Rock is a smart guy. But I especially like the way he mixes his lowbrow and highbrow influences, and I really liked this movie.